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With BMHRC Now a COVID-19 'Only' Centre, Bhopal Gas Tragedy Victims Cry Foul

"Until further notice, the hospital will treat only patients with novel coronavirus disease,” a 39-year-old victim was told when he went for his regular dialysis session.

Bhopal: The Madhya Pradesh government’s order designating the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre, a super-speciality hospital that provides free medical care to the survivors of Bhopal Gas Tragedy, as a state-level COVID-19 treatment facility has not gone down well with victims.

The order issued by Pallavi Jain Govil, principal secretary, public health and family welfare department said that the state government had declared the novel coronavirus as an infectious disease in the state. The Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre has been identified as a state-level COVID-19 treatment institute in public interest for prevention. Only COVID-19 patients will be treated in this hospital, said the order.

The victims of the world’s worst industrial disaster, and organisations working alongside them, are deeply aggrieved by the decision of the Madhya Pradesh government.

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The Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sanghathan (BGPMUS) and the Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS) felt that “the abrupt decision to shunt the gas victims from BMHRC to elsewhere does not appear to be a well thought-out and considered decision because instead of ensuring that the medical protection provided to the gas victims are doubly secure, a bizarre attempt is being made to downgrade such protection and make them more vulnerable to an attack from COVID-19”.

“We are going to send a letter to the Madhya Pradesh government, the state’s chief minister and the prime minister requesting them for proper medical treatment to gas victims at the BMHRC,”  said N.D. Jayaprakash, co-convenor of Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS).

Turning away from the hospital

Upon receiving the order from the public health and family welfare department, stating that COVID-19 had been declared an infectious disease in the state under Section 51 of the Madhya Pradesh Public Health Act, 1949, the BMHRC administration vacated the hospital and asked all the gas victims who were undergoing treatment at the hospital to leave.

“I have come to the hospital to undergo my regular dialysis in the morning. When I showed my identification number at the registration desk, they told me to wait for sometime. A little while later, the hospital said they won’t admit me today. When I asked why they replied by saying we are not going to undertake dialysis or any other medical treatment to gas victims. Until further notice, the hospital will treat only patients with novel coronavirus disease,” said 39-year-old Aqeel Ahmed, as he sat on his tri-motor cycle holding his crutches stick.

Ahmed, a victim of the gas tragedy, lost a kidney and developed a respiratory problem after coming in direct touch with the poisonous gas that leaked from the Union Carbide Plant on the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984. Ahmed a resident of the Kabitpura locality, one of the affected areas, now resides in Kamla Nagar, a locality in the state capital. In a week, he requires three dialyses to keep himself moving. Each dialysis in a private hospital in Bhopal costs between Rs 2,500 and Rs 4000.

Ahmed is not the only victim who was denied admission to the modern-day hospital set up to provide specialised medical care to the victims of the 1984 Union Carbide MiC gas leak disaster.

Shiv Prasad, another victim of the Bhopal gas tragedy, who is a resident of the Chandbad locality adjoining the Bhopal Railway Station, has a kidney ailment and had to leave the hospital after the BMHRC administration refused to grant him admission.

“They told me to visit other government hospitals of the state capital,” said Prasad and added that he left after he realised he had no other choice.

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“The BMHRC administration have told us to take further treatment at government hospitals. I want to ask the officials, why we are forced to suffer again”, asked Aqeel while leaving the premises of BMHRC.

BMHRC’s establishment

The BMHRC was set up by the Union Carbide in (partial) compliance of a 1991 Supreme Court directive to the US multinational to establish a full-fledged hospital with a bed strength of at least 500 beds with the best of equipment for treatment of the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy. The present strength of the hospital has been confined to 260 beds, in defiance of the Supreme Court ruling.

The BMHRC was established in 1998 to provide free healthcare to the survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy.

For the establishment of the hospital, Union Carbide established the Bhopal Hospital Trust (BHT) in February 1992 in England with just US $1000 as its contribution. And to run the trust, former Attorney of the UK, Sir Ian Percival was named its sole trustee. Six years later, in August 1998 the BHT was Indianised to form the Bhopal Memorial Hospital Trust (BMHT). After the death of Sir Ian Percival in April 1998, former Supreme Court Chief Justice A.M. Ahmadi was appointed the chairperson of BMHT.

But in the last over two decades, the hospital has been surrounded by controversy after it was set up as a super speciality hospital in 2001.

In the year 2006, the hospital faced its worst episode, when 17 people lost their lives, after the hospital staff went on a strike to push for various demands. Over the last two decades, nearly 300 employees (including specialists) out of a total staff of 650 of the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC) have resigned in protest against the arrogant and careless attitude of the management. Of the nearly 16 departments, more than six are not functioning in the absence of sufficient staff.

One another shocking and disgraceful episode at the hospital came to light in 2008 when secret drug trials were illegally conducted on gas-victims at the BMHRC between 2004-2008. Co-convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS), an organisation working to support the gas victims along with Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (BGPMUS), said that the authorities at BMHRC made every effort to shield the culprits after the matter became public.

Both the BGPMUS & BGPSSS had sought a detailed inquiry into this unsavoury incident, where gas-victims were used as guinea pigs, and have demanded stringent action against the guilty. Pursuing the matter, BGPMUS &  BGPSSS have become interveners in Writ Petition (C) No.33 of 2012, which was filed by the Swasthya Adhikar Manch, Indore, to oppose unregulated drug trials in the country, especially by multinational drug companies, and the matter is currently pending before the Supreme Court.

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Lastly, the hospital was news most recently in November 2019, when 62-year-old Abdul Jabbar, a 1984 Bhopal Gas tragedy survivor-turned-crusader for justice for all victims of the carnage who was also among those who had actively participated in the representations before the Centre over the establishment of BMHRC, was denied medical care by the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC).

Nearly 25,000 people have died over the last three decades due to respiratory, psychological illness in the absence of proper medical care since the night of December 2-3, 1984 when 40 tons of the deadly Methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal.

The official figure of the death toll is 15,274. But, according to activists working with the survivors of the gas tragedy, more than 35,000 people have died due to the effects of the gas. There are over 100,000 people who can be called physically weak and about 200,000 people have been regularly going to the hospitals.

In Madhya Pradesh, five people tested positive for COVID-19 in Indore on Wednesday morning. Of the five, four are residents of Indore and one is from Ujjain. With these new cases, the tally now stands at 14. Earlier, nine cases had been reported from Jabalpur (six), Gwalior (one), Shivpuri (one), and one from Bhopal. The pandemic has spread to six districts of the state.

Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has made an announcement that he will give one month’s salary to the chief minister Relief Fund to tackle the pandemic. He has also appealed to the members of the legislative assembly to communicate with workers and educate citizens by remaining indoors.